Smackdown Books 2018

Wolf Hollow
Salt to the Sea
The Serpent King
Optimists Die First
The Hate U Give
Orphan Island
Dan vs. Nature
The Female of the Species
March
Unbecoming
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere
Paper Girls, Vol. 1
The Passion of Dolssa
The Distance Between Us
When We Collided
Louis parmi les spectres
OCDaniel
Girl in the Blue Coat
Refugee
Defy the Stars

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

No. You're Crazy!

 

As I think about all of the books I’ve reviewed in the past few years as part of the Smackdown, it seems like one of my recurring pet peeves is the tendency for YA authors to create too many plot points within their narratives. Is this reflective of a larger societal perception (seemingly backed by science http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/may/31/why-teenagers-cant-concentrate-brains) that teens may not be able to stay focused on one thing for an extended period of time, or simply writers going for broke with as many engaging concepts as they can fit into a novel? I don’t know, but I find it frustrating when a character or situation that deserves depth and nuance, instead gets bogged down shifting from one crisis to the next.

beauty of the broken is a novel that falls prey to this particular problem, but the author actually navigates it all quite deftly until the end. This is probably a direct result of crafting a compelling protagonist who, while not immune to moments of outright teen angst, is thoughtful, introspective and brave. Mara is dealing with two significant challenges and the most dominant and immediate one is that her father is an unrelenting brute who, during the course of the novel, violently assaults both her beloved brother, Iggy, and her mother. I was going to write that Mara is also struggling with her sexuality, but that is not accurate: Mara is completely at peace with her sexuality, but she is struggling with the frightening ramifications of being a lesbian in a community that contains both the aforementioned violent sociopath -who has a particular hate-on for anyone different from him - and a local preacher who not only holds sway over much of the community, but also seems to frequently focus on “abominations” which would include Mara. I found Mara’s burgeoning love story with the town new girl, Xylia, very honest and compelling, and it was heartening to find some genuine joy and passion in a book that dwells on an awful lot of ugliness. It created a counter-weight to the horrid reality of Mara’s home life with a man who poses a persistent emotional and physical danger (though he never assaults Mara physically) to his family. I’ll also give due credit to Tawni Waters in being able to create a character capable of such brutish extremes, while still managing to portray some slight nuance to his inner life, and even more significantly, being able to show how pervasive the desire for a family norm can become, even if it is a horrifying norm. There is a moment midway through the book where we see Mara’s desire to just be her Daddy’s little girl which is both beautiful and terrible. There are moments where this novel has the potential to become something transcendent. Unfortunately, those moments get lost in an ending sparked by a (spoiler alert) not entirely unexpected, but nonetheless horrifying, sexual assault that sends the novel speeding towards a completely jumbled ending.

So, how does that stack up against Crazy. Well, I’ll admit to not being crazy about the verse novel form, although I know there are many devotees. I would like to read an argument as to how the verse form enhanced this novel. I tried reading parts out-loud and I just couldn’t reconcile this decision with the novel’s larger aims, and as Dia mentioned in her review, this is not verse in any meaningful sense. I’ll put that aside for the moment, however. I think this is an ambitious and perhaps even important book, if for no other reason that it focuses on something - a parent’s mental illness - that a large number of our students experience, but likely have little opportunity to discuss until their situation reaches a crisis point. In the novel, Laura’s mother’s mental health struggles are the frame for the larger narrative of her life, which involves a complex family dynamic, the navigation of a typically challenging high school social scene, her uneasy relationship with art and, the role of faith in her family and larger community. So, again, lots going on, but to her credit Phillips weaves these threads together quite seamlessly, although again, for a verse novel the voices are sometimes shockingly nondescript. I was also somewhat dissatisfied with the way the author navigates the 60s landscape. I was born in the seventies, but the sixties have always loomed large in my imagination and pop culture experiences and that means that I have a lot to build on in imagining this setting and some its nuances. I can’t imagine that this would be the case for many of our students and I don’t think the author provides enough atmospheric detail to really bring the time to life, much less help a young adult understand some of the subtle social critiques the author is intending. I realize from the afterward that the author is drawing on her own personal experiences, and I get the whole write-what-you-know thing, but if your target audience are kids born in this century, setting your novel in an only partially realized 60s era seems a bit thoughtless, if not lazy.     

Wait, that’s kind of harsh. I am picking Crazy, right? Right. (Sigh) And so it goes. Two well-intentioned, sometimes thought-provoking novels, with some substantial flaws. I’ll stand with Crazy for a slightly tighter narrative and a sometimes moving portrait of the complex emotional and physical toll mental illness can exact from a family. Also, the title, while boring, does not hold the potential of physically repelling readers like beauty of the broken.

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